By: Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired
Looking back over my thirty-plus years in the Regular Navy, shipmates of the culinary persuasion stand out as some of the most colorful and memorable characters I have encountered. My association goes back to my childhood as my uncle, a quiet indefinable man, was a Navy Cook with the Asiatic Fleet in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties.
When I enlisted they were still called “Cooks” and wore a crescent moon rating badge. Cooks of that era were infamous for their breakfast eggs that came powdered and were cooked like a casserole in large baking pans. When served the hard-brown crust hid a yellow-green substance with a consistency somewhere between Marston landing mat and Portland cement. Being a gourmet, I enhanced their flavor with just an essence of “red lead” [catsup] the condiment of choice and scoffed them down before the chemical reaction dissolved the metal food tray!
As the Navy advanced technically and became more sophisticated, The Cook rating became Commissaryman and the eggs, their freshness debatable, were no longer powdered. You could have them prepared to order as long as it was scrambled. They were still prepared in baking pans. In the latter part of my career, the “age of the specialist,” Commissaryman became Mess Management Specialist and fresh eggs were prepared before your very eyes, hot and sizzling from the grill…over-easy, sunny-side up, you name it, nothing was too good for those who wore the Navy Blue! Alas, I was born thirty years too soon!
The main character in this gastronomical romp is a five hash-mark Navy Cook. With out a doubt, one of the meanest potty-mouthed curmudgeons that ever put on a pair of thirteen-button trousers! It all began in the fall of 1948. Upon arrival, at the Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, California from recruit training I was assigned to general detail and then to the base galley as a mess cook. I would remain there until a slot opened in the next Engineering Aide/Draftsman class.
Mess cook duty was more or less a rite of passage for all young sailors. Few escaped the lowly toilsome assignment of scullery technician, pearl diver, pot polisher, potato peeler, hash slinger, steam-table engineer, deep-sink commando, etc. Mess cooks assisted the cooks, bakers and butchers in their daily tasks of feeding several thousand men three squares a day plus night rations, which was no easy task by any measure. I didn’t mind and was happy with the mess assignment…damn thrilled in fact, for at eighteen I was a skinny bottomless pit. To think I was about to be smack dab in the middle of literally tons of edible goodies gave me goose bumps! Add the pungent smells of simmering cauldrons blended with the sweet spicy aroma of the bakeshop and you had paradise pure and simple! Yes, I was definitely going to like mess cooking.
The galley staff worked Port and Starboard duty with three days on and two days off. The Starboard section would have the watch over Christmas. The section Watch Captain was First Class Petty Officer Gene Williams. To his drinking buddies he was known as “Porkchop” or “Mean Gene.” No one out of his immediate circle would ever utter those words for fear of immediate annihilation! Rumor had Williams on the Cruiser Indianapolis when a Japanese submarine sank it on July 30, 1945. The horrendous tragedy occurred only weeks before the end of the war. He was one of three hundred-sixteen survivors of a crew of eleven hundred ninety-nine. Spending days in the water, sharks and hypothermia took many of his shipmates. The Galley Leading Chief forewarned us to give him a wide berth as he did not have a “full sea bag.” Translated into modern terms, he apparently suffered from PTSD; a symptom not fully recognized nor treated by the medical community of that time.
Williams in his forties had long since reached his career potential. A large man, he wore a permanent scowl and his deep-set eyes seemed to focus on infinity. Every exposed body part bore a variety of tattoos, ranging from mystic oriental symbols to Hula-girls that wiggled when he flexed his large biceps. It was said he had ship screws [propellers] tattooed, one on each cheek of his behind and a fanged serpent on his penis that slithered down out of his navel. It was described as, “Magnificent examples of epidermal art that brought tears of envy to many a Seafarer privileged to view such rare imagery.” It certainly brought tears to my eyes just thinking of the pain those vibrating needles must have inflicted on such sensitive areas!
With the new galley detail in ranks between the rows of mess tables, Williams strutted the line stopping to focus eyeball to eyeball on each man, never uttering a word. Nervous as he approached, I began to wonder if all those goodies were really what I wanted, this figure before me was acting very bizarre. As I pondered my faith, he crossed his arms, swelled his huge chest in a Mussolini “Il Duce” pose and broke the silence …
“I loooove young girls, I love old women, I love’em anyway they’re sliced, preferably the oriental cut! But what I love most…is pimply-faced dip shits like you! So be forewarned, do not cross me! I’m GOD ALMIGHTY in this galley. MY, galley! So, if you don’t want a lightning bolt up your chocolate speedway, when I say SQUAT, I want you to grunt ‘til you turn purple and your eyes bug out! YOU GOT THAT?” Heads were frantically nodding up and down…hell, I was in such agreement I was getting whiplash!
Williams’ smirking cronies leaning against the tables behind him were turning away or covering their mouths in an attempt to hide their hilarity, each having previously witnessed his legendary mess cook indoctrination spiel. On the other hand, those of us on the receiving end were scared shitless! I was unsure if this fire-breathing Godzilla was pulling my leg, or serious in his threats. I accepted it as threats and hoped I could stay under the big ape’s radar until my class began in January.
You may have already guessed, with my boyish charm and handsome Adonis features I did not go unnoticed…I was assigned the most miserable job in the entire mess, that of “Pearl Diver” [washing pots, pans, metal trays and silverware in the deep sinks of the scullery.] Settling into my isolated duties, I rarely saw Williams, yet remained very uncomfortable...
With chin raised and jaw set he would amble along the line of stainless steel cooking vats called, “coppers” that ran the length of the galley. The coppers were stirred with long heavy wooden paddles. To stress his dominance, he carried one like King Neptune’s Trident. Bumping the handle-end on the galley deck, he would move from one copper to the next tasting and stirring while mumbling to himself. The bumping would rattle the ladles, pots, pans and other utensils hanging, or on steel worktables further magnifying the wariness of his presences.
On Christmas Eve after the Supply Lieutenant, Leading Chief and off-going Port section left the mess, Williams as Watch Captain was in total control of the galley and responsible for the preliminary preparations of the Christmas Day dinner. Following the evening cleanup, mess cooks were dismissed until 0400 the next morning when we would return to help with the basic preparations of breakfast and the holiday meal. With the galley cleared, a clandestine arrangement with certain Hospital Corpsmen to trade several turkeys and hams for a tin of 180 proof medicinal alcohol went down as planned…
At four the next morning the duty Master-at-arms came through the berthing space flipping lights and rattling bunks. Grinning, he sang out, “Okay, sailors, let go those scrawny worms and let me see you squirm…Its time to go give Old Porkie a big juicy holiday kiss before he sticks his paddle up your asses!” Becoming somber for a moment, he spoke with concern, “Listen up, kidding aside…be on your toes! The cooks have been drinking all night, and when Porkchop is on the sauce he is one crazy son-of-a-bitch!” Turning to leave he smiled sarcastically, “By-the-way Shipmates, HO, HO, HO and merry friggin’ Christmas!”
Williams and his section cooks had played poker all night. To get into the holiday spirit they had tapped the tin of alcohol cutting it with canned grapefruit juice. They drank until they had literally lost their sanity. Several had passed-out…that “180 stuff” does strange things to a man’s brain. When we reached the galley for muster, I looked around and little had been done in preparation for Christmas dinner or the morning meal.
The turkeys, hams and other frozen goods were still in the walk-in coolers. Smoke and the rancid smell of burnt bake goods drifted through the galley. Opened cans of green beans and sweet potatoes sat scattered in syrupy pools on worktables. The only cook still standing was holding an open can of yams and pitching the spuds one by one to Williams, who was hunched over in a batter’s stance between the rows of coppers. It was apparent he had scored several home runs, for the area was dripping with oozing globs of reddish orange matter!
Seeing the unbelievable, yet hilarious sight of the drunken ball players we youngsters clapped, whistled and burst into laughter! Sensing, he was being ridiculed; Williams went into a violent rage, charging in our direction! The paddle made whirligig sounds as it cut circular swaths through the air. His sudden lunges caught many off guard. Crouching along the row of coppers I tried to make my way to the scullery…no self-respecting cook, drunk or sober would venture there!
Mess cooks scattered as he stormed about thrusting and screaming, “All you punk asses…out of my galley! Go! Damn it, go [starting to cry] this is my galley and old Gene can take care of this Christmas crap as I have long before any of you were gleams in your daddy’s eyes…I am KING of my domain!” Staggering, he fell against a copper gashing his forehead on the steam control valves. Slowly regaining his footing, blood trickling down his face he attempted to continue his quest as his legs buckled beneath him. Physically and emotionally drained he remained slumped on the floor sobbing uncontrollably as the last man fled the galley…
“…as the last man fled the galley”…what about the sniveling life-form cowering beneath the scullery deep sinks?
Christmas Day 1948
Foot Note: The Christmas catastrophe was solved by canceling breakfast and lunch and substituting a brunch at 1000 hours. The gala holiday meal with all the trimming was served as the regular evening meal. As the “turkey caper” unfolded, certain Cooks and Corpsmen celebrated the New Year with a few less stripes on their sleeves. Petty Officer First Class Gene Williams was medically retired…